RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Quote - "we did our job perfectly." That's how President Trump is characterizing his decision to move U.S. troops out of the border region between Syria and Turkey. That decision then cleared the way for Turkey to go in and attack the same Kurdish fighters who had been fighting with the U.S. against ISIS. That Turkish offensive is now in its third day. The United Nations refugee agency is warning that tens of thousands of civilians in northern Syria are being forced to flee their homes. The U.N. and other aid agencies are warning of a humanitarian crisis.
While President Trump has threatened Turkey with sanctions and says he hopes his administration can, quote, "mediate," there are fears that significant damage is already being done. General Jack Keane is a retired four-star general, now a national security analyst for Fox News and an informal adviser to President Trump, and he joins us now on the line. General, thank you so much for being with us.
JACK KEANE: Yeah. Good morning, Rachel, glad to be here.
MARTIN: The president claims - I said it up there - quote, "we did our job perfectly" in Syria. Do you think that's an accurate characterization?
KEANE: Well, he's correct in the sense that he accelerated military operations, when he became president, in Syria to destroy the ISIS caliphate. And with the help of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who did the fighting - they were 60,000 strong, and they're still in the area. We provide a couple of thousand advisers for them. So, yes, we have stayed in that area. It's been a successful operation, but it would take our persistence to ensure that ISIS do not return to the status it once enjoyed.
MARTIN: So do you think the president made a mistake?
KEANE: In this area, I think it is a strategic blunder of significant consequence to permit Erdogan to use military force to establish a buffer zone. We should not have accepted that declaration by Erdogan and told him something to the effect that we control the airspace in that area, President Erdogan, and if you cross your military forces into that area, they will be retaliated against in force by us. What I want to do is return to negotiations. And that's unfortunate what has transpired.
MARTIN: You're saying that President Trump, though, knew that Erdogan wanted to take that land by force because that's actually not what the president has maintained.
KEANE: Oh, no, yeah, Erdogan told him he was going to take it by force. Erdogan told him that he was - he fully intended to conduct operations to clear that buffer zone to the depth that he wanted to have it.
MARTIN: So why did the president then say that the United States does not support any attack on the Kurds - the president threatened to shut down Turkey's economy - if he knew that that's what the intention was from the beginning?
KEANE: Yes. Well, I can speculate that he pulled the U.S. forces out of there so they wouldn't get between the Turkish and SDF forces, and that's less than 50 people. So it's not particularly consequential in terms of a number of our forces. They're still there.
MARTIN: But, symbolically, they were very important.
KEANE: Oh, yeah. It's absolutely critical. What we really have done is we've told the Syrian Democratic Forces - in this case, the Syrian Kurds - that we're not going to back them up. And Turkey artillery fire and Turkey air power is being used against them. Turkey is using Syrian militia forces as their ground forces assisted by some of their commandos to take physical control of the area. Syrian Kurds citizens are certainly fleeing the area to get away from the bombs and the artillery fire.
MARTIN: General, can you explain the significance of undermining that alliance? I mean, President Trump has said, hey, the Kurds are only after their own land. They didn't help us in World War II. What is - what are the consequences of betraying these fighters?
KEANE: Yeah. I think they're pretty significant, frankly, strategically. We've been assisting - excuse me - the Syrian Democratic Forces with the Syrian Kurds who were a part of for five years. This began under the Obama administration in 2014. We provided them arms and training and then assisted them in the fight against ISIS. There were 60,000 strong on the ground fighting. We do not take away the ISIS caliphate without them. As I said, they did the fighting, we assisted them in that endeavor. And we committed to them that we would protect them. We formed a bonafide partnership and as much of an ally that we have had in any war that we've ever fought. And they certainly understood that, that that partnership was there. I know for a fact that the Arab nations in the region and the Israelis have called into this administration telling them how disappointed they are. It looks like you're disengaging from the partnership that we have. The United States is no longer reliable and trustworthy. So it has strategic implications beyond the immediate situation.
MARTIN: General, you talked about the fact that the caliphate may be destroyed but that ISIS - that there is a threat of resurgence, that the threat isn't totally eliminated. Do you believe - do you have faith that Turkey will prioritize fighting ISIS? Because the president has said Turkey can manage that fight.
KEANE: No. I think that's a myth. Regardless of what Erdogan may have said to the president, their military doesn't have any intentions to deal with ISIS. They're not going to go south to deal with the mainstay of ISIS as it's attempting to resurge and (unintelligible). And here's the other problem. There are 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention camps being guarded by Syrian Kurds. They have not uncovered those detention camps as of yesterday. But if those fighters are needed because of a Turkish military incursion and those camps are uncovered, those fighters will not return to Europe as the president said because the overwhelming majority of them are Syrians. Only a small minority are Europeans. About half of those would stay and fight. So that would be a major accelerant to the ISIS fight in eastern Syria. That would put us right back where we were five years ago in dealing with ISIS. There's 18,000 ISIS fighters right now between Iraq and Syria that are not in captivity that are operating as a terrorist network attempting to at some point I thought possibly the end of next year begin to try to retake territory again. So this is the real danger here, and the Turks are not going to deal with that.
MARTIN: If President Trump is not listening to your guidance on this, he's not listening to his most - his closest, most vocal supporters in Congress, like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is he listening to on this issue?
KEANE: Well, he has national security advisers around him, obviously. I do believe that most of those advisers were surprised by this decision and clearly believed that we still should be supporting the Syrian Kurds and getting back to the negotiating table with Turkey what the size of that buffer zone should be. And hopefully we'll be able to do that. But I'm not confident as of today, certainly.
MARTIN: Retired four-star General Jack Keane, thank you so much for your time.
KEANE: Good talking to you, Rachel. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.